Sunday, September 09, 2012


SkyTools 3 for Dumbbells

If you've been reading The Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South for long, muchachos, you know there are three computer programs for astronomy I use more than any others:  Cartes du Ciel (planetarium), Nebulosity (DSLR and CCD imaging), and SkyTools 3 (planning/observing).  If I’m not taking pictures, it’s either ST3 or CdC. I love Cartes du Ciel. Not only is it free, it has everything I need in a planetarium program. These days (or nights), however, I usually only use it indoors or to operate the Atlas mount with EQMOD outdoors. Everything else is done with SkyTools 3 (ST3).

“Yeah, yeah Unk. We know you think it’s the bee’s knees and the cat’s meow. But I had a look at a copy running on my pal Bubba’s computer and couldn’t make heads nor tails of it.” Which is something I hear occasionally. In truth, there is a lot to SkyTools 3, and the program’s author, Greg Crinklaw, does things the way he thinks they should be done whether that fits the standard Windows user interface model or not. Once you start using ST3, you’ll likely say “Yeah, I see why he did that,” but, yes, SkyTools is different.

What I've said before on this subject is that you wouldn’t expect to sit down and use Microsoft’s Access or Excel without a little larnin. They are powerful and complex programs. Well, so is SkyTools. And spending time learning it will pay off in spades. But the dirty little secret? You can begin using the program to do useful things in just a few minutes, which is what I am going to show you how to do today.

Let’s get started. While I use the Pro Edition, almost everything here should also apply to the “Standard” version. First things first:  install SkyTools 3 on your astro-puter. Done? Cool. Fire the thing up by double clicking the little icon the install program will have placed on your desktop. Your reaction when the main screen, “Nightly Planner,” bursts onto the monitor? “Dang, Unk! Sure is different!

You betcha, Skeezix. There ain’t even the familiar Windows menu bar—you know, “file,” “edit,” etc. Instead, you’ve got a series of tabs across the top. “Nightly Planner,” “Current Events,” “Special Events,” “Ephemerides,” and “Real Time” (you may or may not have that last one if you don’t have Pro). These tabs send you to separate program modules that let you do different things, everything from looking at a list, to finding out when the next good meteor shower will be, to sending your telescope on its go-tos.

“But where do you go to set up the program? You know, latitude, longitude, and that other stuff astro-programs want to know about.” Some of that is done with the bar of icons underneath the tabs, and we will work with them shortly, but that is not where you go to set location. For that, you use the hypertext bar under the icons. The first link shows the date; skip that and click the next one over, which is displaying an observing site. It’s not your site, so you want to change it.

Set in the lat/lon for Bugtussle, Alabama or your observing haven of choice by clicking “new” in the window that appears. You can then choose a location from preset ones or enter one manually by mashing the “Manual/GPS” button. You’ll usually enter position manually so as to be precise. Type in your observing locale’s latitude and longitude and elevation in the appropriate fields (the format is degrees-minutes-seconds).

Once you’ve entered the coordinates and OKed ‘em, you will be back at the main Site window where you will choose your time-zone, accept the program’s daylight savings time rules, and enter seeing, air temp, humidity, and set up a profile of your horizon obstructions if’n you’ve a mind.

Only one more thing and you are done with location: enter the condition of the sky with the hypertext just below daylight savings time. The hypertext link will be a mite confusing for novices—and to Unk, too, actually—something like “20mag/arc sec^2” Don’t be a-skeered. Click it and you will get a window that will allow you to enter the degree of light pollution in understandable terms: “urban, suburban, country.” If you are smarter than I am, you can hit the “Advanced” tab and enter your location’s Bortle rating.
After you’ve got your home position in, you can continue to enter the coordinates of your fave star party locations and the other observing venues you frequent. When you arrive at the Possum Holler Star Party, for example, just click the location hypertext on the Nightly Planner screen and choose the PHSP from the list in the window.

Skip the next hypertext, the one that shows current telescope, since we haven’t set one up yet. The tab after that is “Observer.” Click it, mash “add,” and enter your name and age. Pushing “compute” will calculate the max pupil opening of your eyes depending on the age you entered. Finally, indicate your experience level from novice to expert via the pull-down and OK the window.

One thing most planning programs do is have you enter your equipment. Most of ‘em just use that to automatically place the current scope in observing log entries, howsomeever. SkyTools 3 goes way further, calculating visibility of objects for your scope and building simulations, depictions of what a selected object will look like in a particular telescope and eyepiece.

So it’s important to get your equipment in and in accurately, and that is easy to do. Go to the icon bar, to the third icon from the left that, natch, looks like a little telescope. The window shown here will appear and will give you two ways to enter a scope. Click “New” and another window will appear. The first entry will be “Enter Manually,” which you should do if your scope is not in the accompanying list. It’s fairly extensive, but mostly contains current telescopes; I had to enter my beloved Criterion RV-6, Cindy Lou, manually. Otherwise, just select the telescope’s name from the list.

If you have to enter your scope manually, it’s still right easy. Type in its name, aperture, either focal ratio or focal length, and how its view is presented in the eyepiece (by clicking on the blue hypertext). An SCT will be “Left/Right Flipped” and “Up/Down Normal;” a Newtonian will be the opposite. When you are done, enter the details for the scope’s finder on the left. If you are not sure about its field size, next time you are outside with the gear find out what it is using a couple of bright stars whose separation you know or can find out for reference. After setting up its finder, you are done with the telescope, but you still need to assign eyepieces to it.

Entering eyepieces is similar to entering the scope. Mash Add/Edit eyepieces in the Scope window and either pick your eyepieces from the list or push the “New” button and enter the data manually, focal length and apparent field of view. Click OK, and highlight the new one in the eyepiece “pool” list where it will now reside. Finally, push the “Assign to Scope” button. You can add a Barlow to the eyepiece array by entering its magnification factor (2x, 3x, etc.) in the field at the bottom of the eyepiece window.

“Alrighty. Done got all that in: location, scope, eyepieces, observer. What next?” Well, there really ain’t no “next,” not for now. Oh, there is more data you can give the program, like the aforementioned horizon contours, but you are good to go now to set up an observing list and start using this dang thing you paid all that money for.

Since planning programs like SkyTools 3 are list oriented, that is you spend most of your time working from a spreadsheet-like list of objects rather than a star chart, you gotta have a list. It’s more than possible you won’t need to make one, though. SkyTools ships with some observing lists already onboard and you can easily get more.

Go to the observing list pull-downs on the Nightly Planner tab, right below the Night Bar, the graphic representation of Sun, Moon, and object altitudes (which we will talk about before long). There you’ll find “Group” and “List.” Group, as you might expect, is groups of observing lists. Select “Default,” and pull-down the List selector below. There you’ll find the Messier, a Best of the NGC, and a few more. Kinda slim pickings, but it’s easy to get bunches more.

Go back up to the icon bar and select the tenth one from the left, “Data.” On the window that comes up select the “Import Shared Data” tab. That will allow you download lists from the Skyhound website (naturally you have to have an Internet connection). Click the bubble selection “Skyhound Web Site,” choose “Deep Sky Observing Lists” (or whatever) from the pulldown below, and push the “Get Listing” button. Shortly, a long list of lists will appear in the window. There is a slew of ‘em, pards, everything from “Seyfert Galaxies” to the dadgum Herschel 2500, so, again, you may never have to worry about making lists of your own.

Scroll until you find a list you like, highlight it, and hit “Import.” When the (short) download is complete and you go back to Nightly Planner, you will find the list you just downloaded is now in the “Current” group. Click on it and it will be displayed.

If you can’t find the list you want/need? There are two ways to make an observing list: automatically and manually. It is duck soup to generate a list automatically, campers. Back on the icon bar, choose “Nightly Observing List Generator,” the seventh icon from the left. If I ain’t said so, there is bubble help for the icon bar (and just about everything else)—put your cursor on an icon and it will be identified for you.

Anyhow, once you click the icon you will be confronted with the simple and straightforward (does it surprise you that I use words like that with the supposedly scary SkyTools 3 Professional?) choices seen here. Pick the type of list you want from the wide range of possibilities, give it a name, size, and list group to go into via the pulldowns on the right, and let ‘er rip with the “Create Observing List” button. And that is just what will happen. In just a few seconds a new list will pop onto your screen. If’n you ask me, this list generator feature is the savior of the “almost ready to drop out-seen everything there is to see” crowd.

The auto-generator just don’t get it for you? Uncle Greg Crinklaw ain’t posted a list of the stuff you really want to see? Your latest project idea, observing all the Collinder open clusters, is a tad on the offbeat side? Never fear, you can assemble a list of exactly the objects you want manually.

As always, ST3 gives you choices. There are two ways to search for objects to put in a list. The first, “Designation Search,” which is accessed with the magnifying glass icon, is best suited to small lists. Here you can type in object names/identifiers and search for them or select single objects from the Browse tab after inputting some search parameters.

Once you’ve found something you want for your list and have highlighted it, use the pulldowns near the bottom of the window to specify the group and list it should go into. You can use the “New” buttons to create a new group and/or new list, “Collinder Clusters,” for example. Before you do that, you might want to make sure it is really an object you want to track down.

To get the straight poop on a fuzzy, push the “More Object Information” button when the object is highlighted in Search Results. You will get another window, one that includes just about anything you might want to know about your quarry. The basic data in the upper part of the window helps you decide if it is indeed a goodun, but what is really valuable is the plethora of tabs near the bottom.

Amazing and particularly helpful is the Visual Synopsis tab, which will tell you how your object will look with the current scope. If it seems it will be a good target, you will want to know when it will be well placed for observing. The text Synopsis will tell you, but the program’s famous Night Bar graph (same as the one on the Nightly Planner screen) is quicker. The Night Bar in the Info window will show a red line for your object indicating its elevation over the course of the day.

One thing I insist on with any program these days is pea-picking PICTURES. When I am going after the hard stuff, ‘specially, it’s a big help to know what my fuzzy looks like. ST3 is real strong here, allowing you to download Palomar Observatory Sky Survey “DSS” images (singly or in batches). These photos will be cached for future use after you download them, and can be accessed from the Images tab in the Object Info window whenever you need them. To get pictures, click the Action Menu hypertext at the bottom of the info screen and select, “Get DSS Image.” “OK” the winder that pops up, ticking the “View Image on Completion” box, and hit “Get Image.” If you have an even halfway decent Internet connection you will quickly have a nice and useful picture onscreen.

Designation Search works great, but is not well suited for building large lists, like one for the 400 plus Collinder clusters. To do that, choose the next icon over from Designation Search, Database Power Search. Its window does look a little scary at first, but its basic operation is simple. Select the tab for galactic deep sky objects (for example), the type of object you want, the catalog(s) you want to search—Messier, NGC, etc.—and the constellations you want to include. Push search and all the hits will be displayed in the search results area at the bottom of the window. You can then control-click or shift-click to choose some or all of the objects, and put them in a list just like you did in Designation Search.

Hokay, by hook or crook you’ve got a list and it wasn’t hard to get even if you had to make it yourself. Now what do you do with it? Well, that’s easy. You take your computer into the night or you print out a list and you observe. But that’s just scratchin’ the surface. To begin, I suggest you forget just printing out the list (hit the little blue down arrow next to “observing list” on the upper left of the Nightly Planner screen and mash “print/copy” to print). ST3 is great in the den, planning on a cloudy night, but where it really shines is on the observing field.

Let’s get to work with our list and find out what she will do. For starters, you can sort. Hit the  title at the top of a column (Primary ID, Alternate ID, Constellation, etc., etc.), and you can arrange the list by that column. By Rise Time or Set Time, for example. Clicking one more time will reverse the order of the sort. I find this incredibly useful when I am trying to decide which objects to tackle first, before they set. By the way, it’s easy to determine which column data your list will display. Hit that blue “Observing List” down arrow near the upper left of the screen, select “Configure Columns” and push the button “Select Columns.” If you don’t reckon you need “Airmass,” for example, uncheck it.

That’s just the beginning of what you can do with a list. Right click a selected object and you will get a shortcut menu that will allow you to do everything from downloading images without opening the Object Info window, to opening that Info window, to displaying charts and visual simulations of the fuzzy—and, like they say on the TBS late at night, “much, much more.”

Before we move on, let’s visit the Night Bar graph at the top of the screen. It sits there all the time and maybe that’s the reason some SkyTools users don’t seem to pay much attention to it. They should. It’s a wonderful help in deciding what to view when and is way easier on the eyes than the rise and set times in the list. There’s a yellow dashed line for the Sun, running from its rise time to set time, curving up and down to indicate its altitude vis-à-vis the time on the X axis. And there’s a blue line for the Moon. And there is a red line for the currently selected list object. Daytime is white, night time is dark gray. One glance at this simple graph and you know when and for how long you can view/image your target.

Chart time. Some planners deemphasize star charts, not offering any or simply providing links to external planetarium programs like the ever-popular Cartes du Ciel. Not ST3. It has a powerful charting engine that produces sky maps on a par with anything any planetarium offers.

Highlight an object in the list, like I did NGC 3395, and right click it. Then, select “Interactive Atlas.” You will shortly be presented with a detailed, beautiful chart with your object centered. What can you do with that chart? Many things. You can double click the object to bring up the Info window with all its tools. Or you can right click and get a menu with multiple choices that include retrieving images, measuring angular distance and position angle, and adding the current object to the observing list if it is not already on it.

One thing ST3’s Interactive Atlas won’t do? Allow you to navigate by dragging the chart around with the mouse. To center on a different spot on the chart, right click and choose “Center View at Cursor” from the menu. It would be nice to be able to click-drag the chart with the mouse, but Mr. Greg says there are good reasons for not implementing that, and he ort to know.

Then there is chart printing. Yes, some observers still print hard-copy charts and carry ‘em into the field. Chart printing is also where some new SkyTools owners freak out. Why? It ain’t because there aren’t enough options for controlling how the charts look. More like there are too many. These options, found under the “Preferences” and “View” icons at the top right of the chart page icon bar, will indeed allow you to change almost anything. The good part? You may never have to worry about this stuff. The defaults will produce a perfectly acceptable printout, like the one shown in the scan here.

Looking at the Interactive Atlas display, you’ll see there are lots of chart-specific icons in addition to the few we’ve explored. The Atlas will dang sure do a lot of stuff, some of it unique to SkyTools. There’s the context viewer, for example, which with a click of its icon will display a simulation of the view through a selected telescope. My advice, though? Leave all this lagniappe for later when you are comfortable with basic program operation instead of getting bogged down with it in the beginning.

There are other charts available in addition to the Interactive Atlas, including naked eye and planisphere type views and what the program refers to as “simulations,” views tailored to the current telescope selection. You can access these either from the Nightly Planner with a right click (choose the telescope in the menu), or by pulling down the blue hypertext text at the top of the atlas screen.

The simulation view is a good way of quickly determining what’s in the field and where for a specific telescope and eyepiece—use the hypertext below the currently selected scope at the right top of the simulation screen to choose an eyepiece. Frankly, though, I prefer the full-blown interactive atlas. But that is just me. One thing to keep in mind: this is a simulation. If it’s daytime and you’ve got Real Time turned on on the sim screen (with the little stopwatch icon), the sky background will be blue and you will not see pea-turkey. If that’s the case, you can turn off the simulation’s real time display and advance or regress time (via little left/right arrows on the icon bar) till your object is there and looking good.

There is one type of observer for whom the simulation is a real boon, the star hopper. It’s possible to make three-pane naked eye/finder/eyepiece charts on the simulation screen. Some other programs like Deepsky can create finder charts like this, but they dang sure can’t do it as easily or well as SkyTools 3. With the simulation screen showing the desired object, click all three of the view buttons on the right of the icon bar, eye, finder, and eyepiece and the program will automatically generate a wonderful finder chart.

If you’ve grokked the above, you are almost ready to start using this soft in a productive fashion, but there is one other part of ST3 you will want to know how to work from the get-go, “Real Time.” That’s the part of the program that sends a telescope on go-tos, but that’s hardly all it does. Real Time is accessed with the last tab on the main list screen, the one that says, yep, “Real Time.”

“But Uncle Rod, my Real Time no workie.” If so, or if you ain’t got that tab at all, it’s because you don’t have the Pro version of SkyTools. If you have the Standard ST3, you need to purchase Real Time, which is an unlockable add-on. See the Sky Hound website for more information, but you really do want to get Real Time, trust me. If you have the new Starter version of SkyTools, you need to upgrade to either Standard or Pro, since RT is not an option for Starter. Y’all go on and do that now. I’ll wait.

Hokay, you’ve either unlocked or upgraded and now have that “Real Time” tab. Click on it and you will be taken to a new screen, one that at first blush looks a lot like the normal Nightly Planner list display. There are differences, however. You’ll notice the blue hypertext on the left, “Observing List,” has been replaced by “Telescope Control.” And you’ll also see the area below the night bar is now taken up by “telescope targeting” and, below that, “Current Telescope Position” and also “Current Date and Time,” a clock that is running. That’s why this tab is called “Real Time.” It reflects the way things are right now.

What in tarnation is that good for? You can see which objects in your list are visible NOW and how high above the horizon they are NOW. In fact, you will see only the objects in the list that are currently visible (or suitably high in the sky). Unlike Nightly Planner, Real Time updates periodically to reflect how the sky changes over the course of the evening. How often does it refresh? That is selectable from 10-seconds to 5-minutes (via the Telescope Control blue arrow). I usually leave mine set for 5-minutes so I am not annoyed by too-frequent screen refreshes.

But how does seeing your list in Real Time help (when you go to the Real Time tab, you will have to select your list group and list; it will not automatically reflect what is displayed in the Nightly Planner tab)? If you are working a large list that contains objects visible at various times of the year, or just a list that has objects in constellations that will rise and set over the course of the evening, it is a godsend. New objects appear on the list as they rise and old ones disappear as they set (or get too low to bother with). Too cool.

Let’s face it, though, most people are attracted to Real Time because it allows you to send your compu-scope to targets. Highlight an object, click the “Slew to” button, and away you go. Which go-to telescopes are supported? Any scope that has an ASCOM driver; SkyTools is an ASCOM program (but also supports the Argo Navis and Sky Commander Digital Setting Circles systems via onboard drivers). Choose your telescope or mount by pulling down the Telescope Control arrow, choosing “Select/Configure Scope” and “ASCOM supported telescope” and set up your scope model in the usual ASCOM fashion. When you are ready to go, click “Connect to Telescope.”

How well does this work? As well as it does with any other ASCOM compliant program, which is “right well.” ASCOM is a mature and proven telescope driver system. One thing you might like to do is enable SkyTools’ voice (by clicking the gear-shaped Preferences icon up top and then choosing the “Preferences” tab on the window you get. You even get to pick a voice. I chose “Audrey” for her cool, calm, and collected English accent. She tells me when she’s slewing, when she’s arrived at a target, and other things that are genuinely useful on a dark field.

And that is it. “You mean that is all there is to SkyTools 3?” Hail no. I could easily run on for another twenty or thirty pages. Haven’t even touched on SkyTools’ wonderful logging system, to cite just one example. Alas, we are out of time and space, Mr. Einstein. Howsomeever, this humble set of instructions will allow you to begin using the excellent ST3 right away, tonight even.

Want to do more? There’s plenty of assistance available, muchachos, ranging from the soft’s excellent help system and an accompanying help feature called “How to.” More depth? There is plenty on Greg’s web page including tutorials and users’ manuals. Have a stroll through that and you will likely soon know more about ST3 than your computer ignernt old Uncle—and good on you, I say.

Next TimeDown Chiefland Way

Hey Rod!

Great Tutorial on ST3. I use it too (although still on the steep side of the learning curve!) Keep up the good work!

Peace and blessings,
Donn W. (aka The AstroMonk)

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